Berkshire Hathaway posts $43.8 billion loss as Warren Buffett's stock holdings tumble

‘Berkshire is a microcosm of the broader economy’

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The slide in U.S. stock prices punished Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s bottom line in the second quarter, as the conglomerate run by billionaire Warren Buffett on Saturday reported a US$43.8 billion loss.

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Berkshire nevertheless generated nearly US$9.3 billion of operating profit, as gains from reinsurance and the BNSF railroad offset fresh losses at the Geico car insurer, where parts shortages and higher used vehicle prices boosted accident claims.

Rising interest rates and dividend payouts helped insurance businesses generate more money from investments, while the strengthening U.S. dollar boosted profit from European and Japanese debt investments.

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Despite the huge net loss, “the results show Berkshire’s resilience,” said James Shanahan, an Edward Jones & Co analyst who rates Berkshire “neutral.”

“Businesses are performing well despite higher interest rates, inflation pressures and geopolitical concerns,” he said. “It gives me confidence in the company if there is a recession.”

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Berkshire also slowed purchases of its stocks, including its own, though it still had US$105.4 billion of cash it could deploy.

Investors closely watch Berkshire because of Buffett’s reputation, and because results from the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate’s dozens of operating units often mirror broader economic trends.

Those units include steady earners such as its namesake energy company, several industrial companies, and familiar consumer brands such as Dairy Queen, Duracell, Fruit of the Loom and See’s Candies.

“Berkshire is a microcosm of the broader economy,” said Cathy Seifert, a CFRA Research analyst with a “hold” rating on Berkshire. “Many businesses are enjoying improved demand, but they are not immune to higher input costs from inflation.”

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Disruptions Persist

In its quarterly report, Berkshire said “significant disruptions of supply chains and higher costs have persisted” as new COVID-19 variants emerge and because of geopolitical conflicts including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But it said direct losses have not been material, despite higher costs for materials, shipping and labour.

Net results suffered from Berkshire’s US$53 billion of losses from investments and derivatives, including declines of more than 21 per cent in three major holdings: Apple Inc, Bank of America Corp and American Express Co.

Accounting rules require Berkshire to report the losses with its results even if it buys and sells nothing.

Buffett urges investors to ignore the fluctuations, and Berkshire will make money if stocks rise over time.

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In 2020, for example, Berkshire lost nearly US$50 billion in the first quarter as the pandemic took hold, but made US$42.5 billion for the full year.

“It shows the fickle nature of markets,” said Tom Russo, a partner at Gardner, Russo & Quinn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who invests more than US$8 billion, of which 17 per cent is in Berkshire. “It’s business as usual at Berkshire Hathaway.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 16 per cent in the quarter.

Geico Losses

Berkshire’s quarterly net loss was equal to US$29,754 per Class A share, and compared with a net profit of US$28.1 billion, or US$18,488 per Class A share, a year earlier.

The US$9.28 billion of operating profit, or about US$6,326 per Class A share, rose 39 per cent from US$6.69 billion a year earlier.

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It included US$1.06 billion of currency gains on foreign debt. Revenue increased 10 per cent to US$76.2 billion.

Geico suffered a US$487 million pre-tax underwriting loss, its fourth straight quarterly loss.

“All auto insurers have been dealing with inflation in claims costs,” Seifert said. “Geico has been less successful than some at passing through rate increases and retaining customers.”

The loss was more than offset by a US$976 million pre-tax gain in property and casualty reinsurance, and a 56 per cent jump in after-tax in insurance investment income to US$1.91 billion.

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Profit rose 10 per cent at BNSF, with higher revenue per car from fuel surcharges partially offsetting lower freight volumes, while profit from Berkshire Hathaway Energy rose 4 per cent.

Berkshire repurchased just US$1 billion of its own stock, down from US$3.2 billion in the first quarter, and compared with US$51.7 billion in 2020 and 2021.

Its US$6.15 billion of stock purchases fell from US$51.1 billion in the first quarter, when it took major stakes in oil companies Chevron Corp and Occidental Petroleum Corp.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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